Richland County voters will have the choice of a pastor, an educator, an attorney, a counselor and a former college president to help lead a school district of more than 23,000 students.
There’s one problem though.
The special election for an at-large seat on the Richland 1 School Board is on New Year’s Eve…
The New Year’s Eve election is not a situation Terry Graham, the interim director of elections for the Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, wanted, but one he said is required by law. The law says a special election must be held 13 weeks after a public official’s resignation, Graham said. The seat became available after Darrell Black, a former member of the Richland 1 school board, announced in September he would be resigning to accept another job in Nebraska.
That 13-week law would have placed the election on Christmas Eve, which is a state holiday, forcing Graham to move the election back one week, to Dec. 31, he said.
“I’m concerned that people will be out of town, (there will be) low turnout,” Graham said.
While there is consensus that the special election is necessary, there are concerns about who will participate on either side of the table:
Richland 1 officials agree the seat must be filled by holding an election, board Chair Jamie Devine said through a spokeswoman.
Last time Richland County held a special election, in August 2018, the turnout was 10 percent. That election included both the Republican and Democratic primaries for state senate District 20, which is now held by Democratic firebrand Dick Harpootlian.
For the Dec. 31 special election, Black’s seat will be the only one on the ballot, Graham said.
Graham is worried about more than just voter turnout. He is trying to get enough poll workers to cover the 93 precincts on Election Day. If there aren’t enough, he may consider combining polling locations, he said.
The candidates in the race are hoping to use early voting and other approaches to bring voters out:
“That seems to be an unlikely time you would get high voter turnout,” said candidate Johnny Ray Noble, a former teacher, veteran, district volunteer and a pastor at Second Nazareth Baptist Church in Columbia. “With early voting and urging people to get out to vote we can probably overcome that.”
Candidate Michelle Drayton, a licensed professional counselor, agreed.
“I just hope they come out,” Drayton said. “New Year’s Eve is a bad day for an election.”
Early voting, which begins on Dec. 1, will be especially important for this election, candidates told The State.
“I’m asking all my supporters to vote as early as they can if they can’t vote on New Year’s Eve,” said candidate Ashlye Wilkerson, a Richland 1 alumna who worked as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Hyatt Park Elementary and is a current member of Winthrop University’s board of trustees.
Jonathan Milling, an attorney at the Milling Law Firm and the father of four students in the district, also thinks the New Year’s Eve election will depress turnout, but that might not be a bad thing.
“You’re going to want to get out and vote,” Milling said. “It’s not like Nov. 5.”
Rather, this election will attract, “people who are interested in the race and who are following the candidates,” Milling said.
Richland’s experience is just the latest example of how a combination of the timing of a vacancy and applicable state or local laws can make scheduling and managing special elections difficult for election offices. Here’s hoping that things go smoothly and that election workers aren’t still counting ballots as the clock reaches midnight and rings in 2020. Stay tuned …